I was preparing to type back my assent when my wife came into the room, so I decided to share the photo with her. “Hey, look at this, baby. Have you ever seen such coonery in your life!?”
So, she takes a peek of my shoulder, and then she reminds me that I have many similar pictures that I have taken throughout the years with students and/or assistants. But she doesn’t stop there; she throws in a clincher just before she walks off: “Were you cooning when you did it?”
Darn her for throwing in truth and reality where it does not belong. But I had to admit that she had a point. I have taken similar photos with students and/or assistants throughout the years, and coonery was never my aim; I meant only to have a little fun and/or bond with those young people under my tutelage. Perhaps my judgment of Chairman Steele was colored by my assessment of him which is right there along with foot fungus.
However, just to be sure, I shared the photo and link to my Facebook page with the question, “Is this coonery or a man simply having a light moment with his interns?”, and several people commented. The vast majority labeled his actions outright and abject coonery. However, more than one person just saw a nerdy black man having fun with his interns.
But the comment that caught my attention asked the question, “Why it is always labeled coonery every time a black man acts a little silly or smiles a bit too broadly?” I had to take a step back and figure this one out.
If it were a high-ranking African American Democrat, would we still have come to the same conclusion? Would we have called it coonery if it was President Obama in the photo clowning around with his White House interns? Would we have called it coonery if it was anyone but Chairman Steele in this photo clowning around?
Or do we simply seem embarrassed for ourselves and for Chairman Steele because we believe he is showing his black behind, and white folk might be watching?
I remember when I was growing up, and I could judge the race of the person on the other end of the phone by the manner in which my mother spoke. My mother was an English teacher, so her grammar was always impeccable; however, when she spoke to white people, she added a special tone and timbre to her voice. She seemed to believe that her already pristine speaking voice was not good enough for white people.
And recently during a discussion of culture and stereotypes with one of my classes, a young white male who works as a waiter admitted that he favored serving African Americans because we tend to grossly over tip in an effort to overcompensate for the stereotype that blacks don’t tip. But we don't want to risk being uncouth do we, especially when white people are around.
While I am at it, let me admit my own complicity in this matter. When I am with my own, I gets buck from time to time; however, when I find myself surrounded by those of a certain hue, I tone it way down. I am careful that I am not too loud or too intimidating; big, loud, bald black guys scare white people sometimes.
I remember when in high school the gospel choir advisors took us to a chorale competition at which we were the only all black choir. Before they would even let us off the bus, they gave us the long speech on how to conduct ourselves. They concluded this speech with the admonishment, Don’t you dare get in there and act black on us!”.
And as we waited to perform, we watched the other choirs laughing and joking and being teenagers while we set as straight as possible, quietly and demurely in a corner. Any attempt to smile or laugh or even talk to our neighbor was meet with a stern look of rebuke. And though we were considered one of the best choirs in the region, we performed poorly on that day; it was though our spirit was crushed. But everyone complimented us on how well-behaved we were.
However, I do know and concede to the notion that there are standards of public conduct that should and must be followed, and I am not talking about these. I am talking about those moments when we seem afraid to be ourselves, when we cannot laugh out loud or even smile, when we alter our conduct to the detriment of our selves simply because we believe white folk is watching. Perhaps, we will only be free when we can get past the notion that we must conduct ourselves a certain way simply because certain eyes are upon us.
Do we act differently when we think white people are watching? Can someone give me a definition of coonery?